Feature: Deborah Roberts
Interview by Andrea Blanch
Andrea Blanch: First thing I have to tell you, I love your work. I first saw it when they sent me an invitation to the show and then when I opened up New York Magazine I saw it again. And I loved it. I thought, “I have to get this girl, she’s fabulous!” Let’s start with your roots and how that influenced your art.
Deborah Roberts: I’m from Austin, Texas and I don’t think that had anything to do with my art. But, I grew up in a family where I had three sisters and I think that has influenced my work. Dealing with notions of beauty and what was acceptable to my mother. Things like that had a great influence on some of the work I’m influencing today.
Blanch: Why have you chosen collages as your means of expression?
Roberts: Well, you know I have this idea that when people see people of color, especially black people, they don’t see them as a whole person. Sometimes they see them as a partial person or one person. I wanted to express that we are different in skin tone and facial features, things like that. So that’s what’s important about the collage work. I used to paint faces and images, which I felt portrayed black people, but those weren’t the images I was seeing portrayed in the news, magazines, and on TV. There was a big discrepancy and I thought, how can I best speak to that in my work? So collage has been a perfect vehicle.
Blanch: Tuki Smith. You were inspired by her?
Roberts: You mean Willow Smith?
Blanch: No, it says you reference black models like Tuki Smith. Do you look at Vogue?
Roberts: Not so much. Are you referring to the article that’s in the New York Magazine?
Roberts: So, this was a special project to me because one my girls are between eight and ten, and when New York Magazine approached me about doing the portfolio section for fashion week they asked me to grow my girl up a little bit. So I had a girl who was 19-23. I looked through several different faces, and when I found her face I really, really, really, really loved it. I was still staying in line with my dialogue of color-ism and black beauty and black excellence. That’s how her face became a part of my work.
A: What was it like for you doing these fashion collages? Did you enjoy it?
D: Well, at first I never had my little girls in couture. I love a lot of patterns and textures in my work, and I remember when I first started doing my collages and sending them to Jodi Quan. She would say, “Deborah, I need color! I want color! This is a magazine, we need color!” I thought okay, I’m into the black and white, and there were things that I thought would merge really wonderfully in collages; they did not. It needed to stay in its complete form, like the Armani dress. I think I liked it - I like putting earrings on my girls, since normally they don’t have makeup or earrings or anything like couture.
A: What influence do you think these collages will have on your little girls?
D: I think it’s the future. I think that these older women are speaking to the same ideas that the little girls are talking about: how has beauty been imagined by pop culture, by American history, by Black culture, by art history, etc? How has her beauty been imagined? I think at twenty-two or twenty-three when you’re trying to figure out who you are as a person, as a woman, you know you’re not the same woman in your 20s as you are in your 30s. How does that look? I think this is the language I want to continue. I think it’s fertile ground. I definitely want to dig into it and unpack it more.
A: Are you talking about using clothes?
D: The imagery of the faces over faces. What does that look like? When I started working on images of older girls, what would the work look like when I add boys?
A: How do you think white people view black women?
D: I don’t know. That’s a broad comment. I think there’s a duality in beauty. Western ideas, blonde hair & blue eyed, I think that’s the ideal beauty. Where lies black beauty or brown beauty? I’m thinking beauty is beauty. I hate to use the clichè beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think when you put one notion of beauty above all the rest then it leaves no room for me to equally be a part of society. So I don’t know how white people view beauty, but what I try to do in my work, in my practice, is say: see me as a person, see me as a whole person, not as a partial person or someone who is ugly and allowed to be ridiculed in certain types of publications. But, see me as a whole human being and if you see me as a human being, then you’ll see yourself in me and that makes us equal. That’s the thesis of my work.
A: Yet you choose to compartmentalize the collage, by using different pieces from this and that? How does that show as a whole?
D: Well, when you look at the collage in it’s fractured state - it feels like blackness is fractured. You tend to try to pick out the faces in each of the collages. I’ve noticed people doing it. They ask me, “who is this top face?” They’re automatically looking for different faces, as opposed to doing the one face and them deciding what their story is by looking at that one complete face. This way they’re looking at partial faces.
For example, I have a piece called “Baldwin’s Promise” where I use Baldwin’s eyes in a little girl’s face. It’s this idea of seeing through his eyes or pulling back history and seeing the issues that he addressed in 1960, which we’re addressing today. That's what I’m asking you to do is to look first for the different faces and then hopefully you see people not as partial people or a single person. I hope that makes sense.
A: I’ll tell you when I transcribe it! But anyway, let’s talk about using the new generation of Breakthrough Girls that inspire your work.
D: Well the Breakthrough Women was about people overcoming certain stereotypes or certain odds. I use Misty Copeland and several of her images. If you read her background, her story, you know that she came to ballet late and that her body shape became a problem for some people and then she became a premier ballerina. She worked through all of those issues and stereotypes; he broke through that., So,that was important in the work.
Then, I have Muhammed Ali. A powerful man who had everything. He was stripped of his title, broken down, stayed by his guns, but he broke through all of that. He stood by his principles and still became champion of the world. I think I have Rihanna in one of these - her story, coming from her background, and becoming a pop sensation at the top of her game, which is amazing. So yeah these are Breakthrough Women. Look at me!
A: How long does it take to do one of these? How long did that New York Magazine assignment take?
D: Well I’m almost reluctant to say because they called me in December when I was in Hawaii. I still had a week left and they needed it really soon. I just had to stop everything and work on it. I could tell by the end of it that I was really worn down. I normally don’t like to work like that. The collages usually take about three weeks to do, from construction to gluing, painting, drawing. They need time to dry.
A: What do you think about the paintings of Obama and Michelle?
D: I like them, and I’m friends with Amy Sherald.
A: Yeah, I like them too. Very cool. Okay back to you. What experience has inspired you the most?
D: As an artist? I guess having my work selected by major museums. We work all the time in our studios and we’re not hoping for anything other than whether or not people understand what you’re doing. Does it makes sense? How is it viewed? For me to have so many people recognize the work, understand what I’m talking about, hear it, feel it, and have that raw emotion. When those students, those women were saying, “This is us. This is my life. These are my experiences!” That was amazing for me. I mean, I wasn’t expecting that. I was a little caught off guard by that.
Because I was just saying what I felt in the work and what I think needed to be said. So, that has been my greatest experience.
A: I read you’re not so much into fashion?
D: Nah, I’m a fat chick. I ain’t into fashion!
A: Right, but don’t you think that this work, using fashion, is going to get you more recognition and acceptance?
D: Well yeah. Art inspires fashion and fashion inspires art. These two ideas are siblings. They’re both about product and production and color and textures, so of course they’re going to inspire each other. I think using the fashion in my work just elevates it to another level.
A: Do you think you’ll keep using it?
D: Probably. Right now, I can tell you I have two major ideas that I want to work through in my work. One, speaking to this notion of silence as acceptance, and the other one is the Four Freedoms. When Norman Rockwell did the Four Freedom posters, he was asking people to invest in America and he did freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of want, and freedom of fear. And I’m going to speak to those four pieces in my work. I’m going to do a series of four images that speak to the freedom of today. Why are we not investing in America? Why is there an attack on freedom of speech, freedom of religion? hose things are ahead of fashion.
A: And you’ll be using collage to do that?
D: Oh yeah, it’s not going to be like a Norman Rockwell in the sense of his paintings, but it’s going to speak to this critique that we’re having in America right now. This interrogation of patriotism. Rockwell dabbled in politics. He didn’t go all in and that’s not my work it’s all in.
A: You brought up something that I’m interested in. When you were talking about the ideal of beauty. In art, it’s been classical Greek, but I have to tell you, before I started the magazine I was a fashion photographer, and I always loved photographing black women because their beauty is very exotic to me. I loved their skin tone. A lot of people used to say, “Oh their skin never comes out right.” To me, that’s total hogwash. I think that the ideal of beauty is changing, you don’t feel that?
D: Sometimes I feel that, but then I see what happened with Meghan Markle, the girl who just got engaged. he’s really beautiful, but they’ve already started to put all kinds of racist imagery on her face. So, yeah I think that it’s changing to a certain degree but I still think that we have a long way to go in accepting different kinds of beauty.
A: Well for me, when I started in the business, which was a while ago, someone like Kim Kardashian would never have been accepted. You would never get someone who was her height, her body type, etc. It’s a totally different body type or look than the Greek aesthetic. For me, even looking around at advertisements, they’re using “normal” people. You never saw that before.
D: You’re right! I only saw people that were so different than what we see today, than what was produced years ago.
A: I just want to know how do these young black girls, since you have a conversation with them, what’s their ideal of beauty?
D: I don’t talk to a lot of little girls. I normally talk to teens and older girls in their twenties. But I taught at UT elementary in an art class a couple of years back, and this little girl came in and said that she was adopted and she hated her nose. She was black and beautiful. I said, “well why don’t you like you’re nose? You have a black nose, for a black person.” She said, “well I don’t like it, I want a thin nose.” She wanted to be like the family that adopted her. She had already started that pattern of self-hate. She didn’t like who she was and she was beautiful. I made sure the whole time that I taught that class that I told her who how beautiful she was.
I see these little girls in stores and in their fashion sense and the way they act, my nieces too. I think I’m in line with talking about this within my work because I think we all experience it. We all went through that idea of wanting a perm in our hair because our hair is sometimes unmanageable. It grows up instead of down. I remember wanting to have fingernail polish on and my mom saying “Pink or off-white No red, no blues, or any other colors.” So, I think I understand that.
A: In your work “Uninterrupted”, which focuses on the complex identities of black women, especially young black girls, did you ever come to a point where you had to reconcile some of the questions you tried to portray visually with yourself?
D: I mean, yeah!
A: What was it like doing that sort of self-work?
D: At the beginning when I started, honestly, I didn’t recognize that eight year old girl. I was so different from her. I mean I had grown through all the stuff. But, what had happened in the last year, having done so much of it, some of the painful things that had happened to me as a little kid started coming through. I had to face those things and come to terms with certain types of issues about myself that I think I normally wouldn’t have thought about having to work on. Even to this day, some of the clothes that I pick out are still based on things that happened to me when I was a little kid.
I got big boobs and I used to try to hide them. My skin tone is dark so I don’t wear yellow or light greens, but those are things that I can see on my girls. Sometimes I get really dark faces and I put really bright colors on them, which is me overcoming some issues that I have with my own personal ideas of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
A: You talk about the “fullness of Deborah”. I’m curious to know when you reached this point of fullness and how it has translated or changed your work over time?
D: I think I kind of understood who I was when I turned forty. I think that’s when you know who you are. In the darkness of 2:00 AM, you know who you are. I think this was me accepting that I had dedicated myself to this work. I am earnest about it and I allow the work to move itself and I’m just along for the ride. I think those things make up the fullness of who I am right now because the work has finally been accepted. I think it was always accepted, but now it’s on a broader level.
A: You also talk about the first time you realized you were black when you were bused to a different school in the 6th grade. What do you know now that you could have told your 6th grade self? How did that influence or trouble your understanding of yourself?
D: That I’m okay. That who I was was okay. That I was an African-American person and that there was nothing wrong with me. But I was made to feel that there was something dirty, something criminal about who I was. I was never allowed to...girl, don’t get me started. I just needed to realize that I was okay. That I was as good person, and there was nothing wrong with me or my family.
A: You mentioned this idea of balancing outside perception within a reality. The people who were let’s say in 2007, which is a year before the first iPhone came out. How do you think social media is impacting children? This battle between a reality that seems to be more and more filtered versus the outside perception?
D: I think that social media is with you all the time. Before, let’s say when you were at the store and you had some type of beef with someone, you could come to the security of your home and your family. Now, that follows you home through social media. It follows you in safe places with friends who maybe go to different schools who read your Facebook post or your Snapchat. And so now, you are allowed to bullied 24 hours a day, unlike when I was in school I was only bullied five days a week. And I think the difference is huge.
A: Bullied for being black?
D: No, just for being different. Doing something different or having a different hairstyle that wasn’t in style or having clothes that weren't in style. You see kids now, they have to have these designer things in order to be accepted and those things follow you. They follow you home now. And before they didn’t. You only went to school Monday through Friday, but now it’s all social media. Everyday, all day.
A: In thirty years from now, how do you think artists will imagine, record, criticize, etc. this era?
D: I don’t know, I always tell people that the work I’m doing is an artifact of this time period. I’m praying that in thirty to fifty years that they will look back at this work and say, “Boy, were they really lost. They were a lost people, and we have corrected it and we are on a better path. We’ve realized that there is no true difference in each other.” So I’m hoping it’s not like what I feel when I read James Baldwin and feel that I am in the same space that he was in.
A: You’re in Austin. Austin is a pretty progressive place to be. How did growing up in the south influence the work and your perception of black girl/womanhood?
D: I think it really didn’t because my first ideas of beauty where in my mom’s Bible. A lot of Michelangelo, a lot of Leonardo da Vinci sketches, religious sketches, etc. While I looked at certain images in TV, I was a book person. I went to books. I dreamt in books. So it really didn’t affect me thinking I was living in the South until I was in my late teens-early twenties. I was still really liberal then, thinking “It’s gonna be alright in my twenties”. Then, realizing in my thirties when certain people were killed or maimed, different types of shootings, Rodney King for example. All those things started to change the perception of blackness for me. And how a sense of fairness kind of went away.
A: I’m a Jewish person and I’ve experience Anti-Semitism. I know what it feels like and I know what it feels like to see images of the Holocaust. But the thing is, not everybody who looks at me knows I’m Jewish. Everybody that looks at you knows you’re black. So there’s no hiding from that at all, and that’s an experience I empathize with tremendously but I don’t know how it feels.
D: Well for example there’s a bodega down the street from where I live currently, and everytime I go in there the guy behind the counter watches me intensely. I mean, he watches me and watches me. I remember going to the counter one time and saying, “Out of everyone who comes in here, you watch me all the time! What are you looking for? Are you thinking I’m going to steal something?” And he said, “No it’s not what you think.” So I said, “Well what is it? You gonna ask me out on a date?” and he said, “No.” So I said, “You know what? I’m not coming in here and spending any more money with you.” And I purposely don’t go to that store anymore. I tell people, at the end of the year when you’re doing your finances and you’re down maybe $150 or $80, that’s me. That’s me gone. And it may be very minuscule, but it’s not there and that’s my way of combating when people do things like that follow me in the store like that.
A: Is this like the worst experience you’ve had as far as dealing with your black identity, where you’re living? I’m not making light of it. I’m just trying to find out.
D: No, of course. I’ve been fortunate enough not to be called the n-word to my face. I may have been called behind my back. I don’t know what I would do if I were called that to my face. I’d probably go crazy on that person. But I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt uncomfortable by people wanting me to speak for all black people. And you know I tell them, I can speak to my experience but not that’s all. We don’t have a monolithic experience base. That’s the worst. I’m not looking for anymore, believe me. I’ve been pulled over by the police, you know, for no reason.
A: That would be scary.
D: It is scary.
A: That to me. I would be freaked out by that.
D: Yeah I got pulled over in San Antonio and I just put my hands on the dashboard, flat, and asked him can I look through my purse to get my wallet. My wallet is black or my wallet is dark green with a silver lining - so that they won’t think it’s a gun, you know? You just have to be careful.
A: The prejudices are unfortunate - well, it’s beyond unfortunate. But it’s like with the whole #MeToo thing. The change will come over generations and generations. It’s nothing like a quick fix overnight. Everybody has to get used to it by putting it in people’s faces. It’s inherent to human beings in a sense, and also what you’re taught. The education has to change, which I think your work really helps with.
D: Thank you.
A: Well, I mean that. You’re on your journey. I just know that if I speak to you a year from now, you’re going to be in another place. Are you going to come to New York at all?
D: Yeah, I’ve been going up when I have shows and stuff. I don’t have any plans to come up until the summer. No, I take that back, I’ll try and come up for Volta because that marks a year since all of this happened for me. You know, I’ve been toiling away for years and I went to New York last year and my whole life changed. It’s amazing.
A: Really? Wow! How exciting!
D: Yeah I sold out at Volta, sold out in my studio, sold out the booth, sold out the gallery in four days at the Art Palace Gallery, and no one knew about me. It went there and just blew up